Tag Archives: 2015 report

Virginia Tech researcher discovers possible drug target for sleeping sickness

Zachary Mackey

Zachary Mackey in Biochemistry is doing research on how to cure sleeping sickness, which is carried by the tsetse fly.

Zachary Mackey is trying to deliver a stern wake-up call to the parasite that causes sleeping sickness, a neurological disease that threatens millions of lives in 36 countries in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Mackey identified a protein vital to the sleeping sickness parasite’s good health. Disrupting the protein with drugs could potentially make it impossible for the parasite to reproduce and survive, and thereby reducing its danger to human health.

The discovery suggests multiple ways to disrupt the protein’s function, said Mackey, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, an affiliated faculty member in the Fralin Life Science Institute, and an affiliated researcher in Virginia Tech’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group.

Sleeping sickness is caused when the vector-borne parasite Trypanosoma brucei crosses the blood-brain barrier during the late stage of infection.

The native African tsetse fly transmits the parasite through a painful bite, allowing it to spread through the body, causing fever, headache, and intense aches and pains.

When the parasite spreads to the brain, it causes swelling, slurred speech, confusion, and difficulty walking, followed by coma and eventually death.

Mackey thinks that overexpressing, depleting, or blocking the protein — known as proliferating cell nuclear antigen — represents three ways this protein could be targeted in the parasite, broadening the types of small molecules or drugs that can be developed to treat the disease.

Though a few drugs currently exist, they are either very expensive or have extremely powerful side effects due to their toxicity, according to Mackey, who is also an affiliated researcher in the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.

Mackey now investigates how altering the amount of protein kills the parasite. Once he better understands how this protein regulates the parasite’s life cycle, he can partner with chemists to synthesize small molecules that target the protein’s disruption.

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International investment generates local returns

The impact of Virginia Tech-led agricultural research spreads far and wide from its original location such that research trials conducted in fields in Cambodia or India, for example, can have profound effects in not only those nations, but also at home.

When the United States invests in international agriculture research, the return on investment is 20 to 50 percent, according to George Norton, professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

That calculation includes direct benefits to producers due to higher productivity, as well as indirect benefits to consumers who experience lower food prices. Less tangible socioeconomic benefits include enhanced gender equality, which allows women farmers in developing countries to empower themselves.

“The United States is thousands of miles away from some of our research sites, but the impact of development research plays an important role in not just agricultural production research at home and abroad, but also in geopolitical stability,” said Norton.

International investment in agricultural research is more than humanitarian and geopolitical in nature, however. International research creates economically symbiotic relationships between the United States and its research partners. Globally, agriculture is an important investment because agriculture is the largest economic sector in many developing countries. When farm productivity increases, the nonfarm sector is stimulated as well; the spending power of the entire population grows, and markets open up for goods produced in the United States, including agricultural products.

“It’s no coincidence that our agricultural export growth rates have been highest in the developing countries with most rapid income growth,” Norton said.

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